The word colic simply refers to the presence of abdominal pain. There are a multitude of colic causes and a spectrum of severity associated with these.
The signs of colic are often vague and non-specific, but the more common things to watch out for include:
- Dullness or depression
- Disinterest in feed (inappetence)
- Laying down more than usual or getting up and down repeatedly
- Stretching out repeatedly may appear to be trying to urinate
- Looking at, or kicking at the belly
- Pawing at the ground
- Abnormal frequency and/or consistency of dung
- Sweating or shaking
Factors that may predispose a horse to develop a bout of colic include:
- Sudden change of feed
- Inadequate water intake
- Ingestion of poor quality feeds (excessively fibrous, mouldy, containing toxins)
- Dental disease (impairing ability to chew food adequately)
- Internal parasite burden
- Tumours in the abdomen
- Sand ingestion
- Previous colic episodes
Causes of colic
The most common place for colic pain to originate is the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), which can be broadly broken down into the small and large intestines and the caecum. Some of the GIT causes of colic are:
- Impactions (often caused by dry feed packing into certain parts of the GIT, which impedes or blocks the flow of GI content)
- Spasmodic colic (increased motility of the GIT)
- Gaseous distension
- Ulceration of the stomach
- Displacements of a portion
- Twists (torsion) of part of the GIT
- Rupture or perforation (usually secondary to ulceration, torsion, distension etc)
- Intussusception (one part of the GIT telescopes inside an adjacent part)
- Infarction (blood supply to a part of the GIT is cut off)
Other conditions that may mimic colic include heart, liver, musculoskeletal, reproductive, or urinary system dysfunction.
In some cases, the cause is simple to determine from the horse's history or findings on physical examination. However, in many cases, the exact cause is not found and the horse's symptoms are treated.
If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, call your veterinarian immediately as some cases can deteriorate very quickly. The earlier we can intervene, the greater the likelihood of a favourable outcome.
While you are waiting for the vet, carefully follow any advice they have given to you over the phone. This may include:
- Removal of food and water
- Putting the horse in an area that is safe - avoid potential hazards in case your horse rolls
- Don't give your horse any medication unless directed to do so by your veterinarian
- ABOVE ALL: Keep yourself safe. Do not put yourself in harm's way!
Your veterinarian will ask you for a complete history and carry out a thorough examination on arrival. A general examination will generally include heart and respiratory rates, temperature, hydration, gum colour and refill and gut auscultation (listening with a stethoscope). It may also be necessary to perform a rectal examination to feel for any distension or displacements, among other things. A naso-gastric tube may also be passed. This tube passes through the nostril to the stomach and helps determine whether excess fluid is present in the stomach, indicating a blockage further along the GIT. Further diagnostic procedures are sometimes necessary and can include blood tests, passing a needle into the belly (testing for excess/abnormal peritoneal fluid) or ultrasonography.
Based on the findings made, the horse is often treated on site, generally with a combination of anti-inflammatories, anti-spasmodics, sedation, fluids, GI lubricants and/or electrolytes.
If the veterinarian is concerned that the cause is something requiring major intervention such as surgery, referral to a specialist equine hospital is also an option. Your vet will assess all the information available and provide you with advice and options regarding the best course of action.
Remember... colic can be fatal! If you suspect your horse is colicking, call your vet immediately.